We come into Christmas now, not the Christmas season—that vague and fuzzy time that begins before the Thanksgiving turkey is purchased, sometime mid-November—but finally, truly Christmas. It rides in on a dark horse, shepherded by the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice.
The solstice is an eve of an eve of an eve, of sorts, as it points us toward the holiday. The winter solstice occurs on the day that contains the exact instant the North Pole is furthest away from the sun, a tilt of the earth’s axis of 23.5 degrees. This is dictated by the tropical year and not a calendar one so the date moves around.
Even so, the winter solstice always arrives in late December, and occurs at the exact moment of time for everyone on the planet. On December 21, then, at 4:23 p.m., CST, the earth’s tilt will be at its extreme, and in the next moment, the world begins to right itself.
Would that everything could be so certain. Holding on would be a little easier.
We don’t know it or pay attention to it, always, but much of our Christmas tradition—the trinkets and trappings of the Yuletide—even the word Yule, by the way—came down to us from ancient celebrations of the solstice. Candles, fires, greenery, revelry, gathering of friends and family, all have at the heart of it, a vigilant waiting for the return of the light. And then, a few days later, a child, a star, gold and precious resins to celebrate a new and promised light.
We take all this and bind it together and find in it meaning, mysterious and deeply personal.
For the past few years I have begun my holiday season by attending the Lessons and Carols performed by the Wesleyan Chamber Choir. Held at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, it is a worshipful and lovely prelude to Christmas, moving and wonderfully done. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” one of my favorites, was part of the program this year, as it often is.
I don’t know the inspiration for this particular arrangement, but it bore almost no resemblance to the carol I have known. A slow carol, it was slowed even more, discordant at times, and the music washed over and around us, wrapping us in something atmospheric and ancient. It was as if, straining, we might pick out fragments of familiar verses, but really, we were listening to the Northern Lights.
Haunting. Moving. Mysterious.
And here we are, a few days away from Christmas, and writing this I am not sure how to proceed. These days we are so easily offended, or told we should be, if only we were more enlightened, more woke. I want to send you Christmas greetings. It feels as natural as offering a hello or good-bye. It is my tradition. But is it possible to proceed without creating some offense to someone, somewhere?
I doubt it.
No, let’s be more exact.
Is it possible to proceed without creating some offense to someone, somewhere?
Of course not.
Then, let me offer this.
I wish for you the warmest of regards, and hope for you good cheer and blessings—whatever you need right now, and by whatever word you call it—and I wish for you mystery and gratitude and to be surrounded by those people and things you love. Especially now, in this deep December.
I hope there are cookies.
I would wish you Merry Christmas, which means for me snow globe villages and jingly songs on the radio and Santa Claus and excitement, anticipation and ribbon, and the second chapter of Luke.
Your Christmas may be secular or religious and or it may not be at all. Some of us love and embrace it. Some of us endure it. Some of us hide until it is over. However you spend it, I wish for you the assurance, that always at the edge of the darkness, a faithful return of the light.